Be Vigilant But Not Obsessive
I have frequently taught classes on risk management and online marketing. Inevitably I have found some very disconcerting levels of knowledge in many Brokers regarding online techniques. With the increased use of Social Media, I’ve found that most brokers are becoming paralyzed with fear and lack of understanding. A result of these emotions has caused a type of paralysis-by-analysis. The Brokers are either doing nothing (wrong answer) or becoming so hyper-vigilant that they are restricting the tools that reach consumers. This post is an attempt to give Brokers some ideas on how to cover their liability and still allow agents to function in the emerging marketing techniques.
I think it’s important to point out that “Social Media” is really just media. It’s an opportunity to engage consumers, in an online networking event. I don’t think that Brokers need written policies on how an agent should engage people at a Chamber of Commerce Social, but most state laws and the Code of Ethics do typically give guidelines. The online venue is potentially more perilous in that what your agent is saying is now read by scores, hundreds or thousands of people.
Don’t Let the Door Hit You
Often Brokers tell me that they simply don’t trust their agents online. Well not to sound crass, but if you can’t trust your agent what the heck are they doing in your Brokerage? If an agent is an idiot offline, their knuckleheadedness (yes, I made that up) will only be magnified online. Creating policies that disallows online marketing is going to yield two simple results. The first result will be a supreme obstacle in recruiting creative and knowledgeable agents. The second will be an exodus of existing creative and knowledgeable agents. I have repeatedly found that those agents who are writing blogs and participating in online conversations are far more informed and articulate better than those who are not. An agent engaging in online conversations about real estate need to be on their toes or their peers will quickly call them out. These agents will typically research a topic to death before putting information on their blog or on Twitter (not always, but usually).
The Genesis of a Policy
‘Where to begin’ is always a popular question. I have recently taken a position as the Director of Professional Development at a large company with multiple offices, this position will entail responsibility for the company’s online engagement. Luckily they have a progressive marketing director, group of Managing Brokers and Realtors. None-the-less, it’s a task to evaluate where all the agents are, who is online and doing well, who is a risk and how do we go about creating policy that will not restrict the agent, but afford reasonable accountability. I know that most of you brilliant readers understand the online tools and hopefully some of you will forward this post to your Brokers; but lets assume that not all Brokers are current with the trends. That’s OK, I recommend that Brokers look for an agent who is more adapt and ask them to begin monitoring other agent’s marketing. That monitor should NOT be responsible for going to the agents, but to bring the Broker anything they find that is questionable. In return for the ongoing efforts of your new tech-snitch, you may want to offer them additional office privileges or a higher commission split. The easiest answer is for the Broker to actually educate themselves on the tools and not be afraid of them.
A Lack of Understanding
Recently, I attended a forum for our MLS, in which they tackled the topic of Social Media. The panelist were attorneys and the audience were a large sampling of the regional leadership. I was very frustrated to see the overwhelming lack of understanding regarding online media. Every state’s regulations are different and this post is not a substitute for you knowing what those laws are and abiding by them. At some level you’ll need to apply some commonsense. In the forum I mentioned, the topic of agency disclosure came up. In Virginia, a licensee doing any advertising must disclose their name as it’s licensed, their company’s name, address and the fact that they are licensed in Virginia. The question arose “What about Twitter, do those rules apply to Twitter?” the answer from the attorney was “Yes, of course”. This is where common sense leaves the tracks. We have three primary problems to overcome.
The first is not understanding that Social Media is about engagement. If all you’re only using Twitter to stream your listings and Open Houses (please don’t) than I agree that it’s a advertising stream and you should have to make those disclosures. If you’re having a conversation with other people, than why make the disclosure? Do you do that at Chamber meetings? “Excuse me… before I talk to anyone at this network meeting, it’s required that I tell you I’m a Realtor, so hide your checkbooks”. Dumb.
The second obstacle is lack of understanding and fear. Too many Brokers still feel that Social Media is for those “young people” even though it’s not and those who have done well by it are 35-55 (my observations only). It’s not the goobers from “Million Dollar Listing”. To hear the complete lack of understanding in the room at the time was very telling of our industry. We must understand those tools that are being used in this industry, regardless of your wish to use them or not.
The third obstacle is that regulations and laws do not always keep up with technology. In the case of disclosures on Twitter, our Commonwealth requires links to disclosures in Banner Ads. Therefore, we have take the spirit of the law. I would agree that an agent using Twitter or Facebook to do any real marketing should have a link to their business webpage on the “about me” area.
Yes, I’m actually advocating that you read the regulations, understand and do your best to apply them. A stretch, I know…
Let’s Put it in Writing
- All agents should be required to maintain an up-to-date list of where they are marketing online, and ONLY be permitted to market on those venues. In most states the listings and clients actually belong to the Broker who is ultimately liable for violations to the regulations. If you terminate the agent or they get hit by a bus, you should know where the marketing efforts are.
- Agents using Social Media must be required to allow the Broker or their designee the ability to follow / friend them. If they are using it for marketing, than the Broker is responsible and must monitor. I know a lot of agents sneer at this and that’s fine. Don’t promote a listing, open house, your business or create fan pages and you’ll not need to consider it marketing and therefore not friend your Broker. If you don’t trust your Broker or don’t want them as a friend on Facebook, then why are you at your company?
- Agents may not discuss ANYTHING specific to any one client. Even venting about their frustration regarding the clients changed job, isn’t calling back, has unreasonable expectations etc.. could be a violation of confidentiality.
- Seeing as a company online reputation is becoming so critical, I would suggest that agents and Brokers alike, enter their names, their market place, their listing addresses and their company name into Google.com/alerts. This is a free search tool that will email you whenever a given search if found online.
Outline what agents can write about in their posts:
- Agents may write only factual statements, and they must reference a source when making statements about Law, Ethics or Policy.
- All disclosures required by the COE and law must be made on all marketing sites.
- Should the agent be challenged on a post (accusations of liable, slander, falsehood, etc…) must be immediately removed and reported to Broker for further review before being reposted.
- Agents may not edit a commenters statement. They may delete it or comment afterwards with a correction of untrue or liable statements.
- Agents may not write posts about another agent, another company or another companies policy.
- Agents may not promote another Brokerage’s listings without permission from the Listing Agent.
- Agents may not post anything that deals with “standardized commissions”, what a competitor may or may not due in regards to commissions or any other statements that may be a violation of Anti-Trust.
- Have a requirement that agents show evidence of some type on training on risk management before they can post.
- Limit the number of Real Estate related websites that each agent can have. The cap should be whatever you can manage to maintain.
There could be many more policy recommendations, but this is an easy list to get you started. Feel free to comment below with policy ideas you may have.